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Highs and lows of the 2019 VMAs: Michael Jackson backlash, Missy Elliott comeback and more

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·6 min read
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While this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, which aired Monday, didn’t have an internet-breaking shocker like the Madonna/Britney kiss of 2003, Kanye/Taylor interruption of 2009 or Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus twerk-off of 2013, it wasn’t without controversy. The night’s biggest highlight — the long-overdue presentation of a lifetime achievement honor to one of the greatest music video visionaries of all time, Missy Elliott — was unfortunately marred by what appeared to be the discreet, unannounced change of that award’s name.

In 1991, MTV rechristened the Video Vanguard Award the “Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award.” But this year — presumably due to backlash stemming from the disturbing documentary Leaving Neverland, which alleges that Jackson sexually abused two young boys, James Safechuck and Wade Robson — the words “Michael Jackson” had seemingly been removed from the category without fanfare or explanation. (Representatives for MTV did not respond to Yahoo Entertainment’s inquiry as to whether the award’s title had been officially switched back; it had been previously reported that it would not be changed, a decision which drew protest from Robson.)

In fact, the only mention of Michael Jackson’s name during the telecast came from Elliott herself, when she said during her acceptance speech, “This Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award means so much to me.” It was unclear if the namecheck was just a force of habit, or if she was making a grand statement — but in her speech, Elliott did notably thank Michael’s sister, Janet, calling her a “great friend.”

Twitter opinion skewed in favor of keeping Michael Jackson’s name on the award, with many fans online outraged by Monday’s omission and praising Elliott for referencing Michael. Outside on the red carpet, most of the celebrities who spoke to Yahoo Entertainment concurred. “We still don’t know one way or the other [what happened]. Michael Jackson is still Michael Jackson,” said Ice-T, while Todrick Hall added, “We don’t know if anything that’s been allegedly said [about Jackson abusing children] is actually fact or fiction. But I don’t think we should take away from Michael Jackson’s legacy. And I am so excited to see Missy Elliott perform and receive her award!” (Watch video above.)

Well, that was one thing everyone could agree upon: The reclusive hip-hop queen’s greatest-hits medley (starting with a holographic house-of-mirrors performance of “Throw It Back,” from her just-dropped comeback EP Iconology) was unanimously, rapturously received. Elliott’s epic performance spanned more than seven minutes and no fewer than five costume changes — including her “The Rain” Hefty-bag onesie and “Pass That Dutch” scarecrow couture. Also making an appearance was Alyson Stoner, the child dancer from Elliott’s “Work It” video, now all grown up and still working it.

It was one of the most electrifying performances in VMAs history; presenter Cardi B called it “fire!” Maybe MTV should consider a new name, the “Missy Elliott Video Vanguard Award,” next year.

These were the other highs and lows of the 2019 VMAs:

HIGH? OR LOW?: John Travolta’s swift Swift double-take

Twitter exploded when Travolta appeared to briefly mistake Jade Jolie — one of several drag queens dressed as Taylor Swift who joined the real Swift onstage as she accepted her Video of the Year award — for Swift herself. This could have been another “Adele Nazeem”-style disaster for Travolta, but instead, it was rather charming. Travolta was a good sport about the whole mix-up, and Jolie, who only placed eighth on RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5, must have been thrilled by all the viral attention. Jolie was serving some Taylor realness tonight.

Earlier in the night when Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” won the Video for Good award, RuPaul’s Drag Race regular Todrick Hall, who co-produced the video, gushed, “I'm so grateful to be in a world where this is what we need to be doing.” Additionally, Swift said in one of her two speeches, “You voting for this video means that you want a world where we are all treated equally under the law, regardless of who we love or how we identify.” To quote RuPaul, can we get an amen up in here?

LOW: Sebastian Maniscalcos is not ready for primetime

MTV has an impressive track record of hiring A-list comedians to host the VMAs, including Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Russell Brand and Chelsea Handler. But Maniscalcos was nowhere near that level. Much of his millennial material fell flat in front of the Gen Z audience, while his jokes about safe spaces and trigger warnings actually seemed embarrassingly out of touch on a night that otherwise celebrated diversity and kindness.

HIGH: Lizzo’s big-ass performance

After stealing the show at this year’s BET Awards with her flute, the it-girl, body-positivity champion and avowed Missy Elliott fangirl was back at the VMAs to celebrate glutes. Lizzo exuded pure joy as she belted every power note of “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” in a front of a giant, jiggling derriere balloon. And booty enthusiast Prince, who once famously performed on the VMAs in a pair of butt-baring peek-a-boo pants, surely would’ve approved of Lizzo’s backup dancers’ “Raspberry Beret”-reminiscent, cloud-patterned outfits.

HIGH? OR LOW?: Snakes, but make it fashion

Who wore snakes best? Not since Britney Spears performed “I’m a Slave 4 U” with Banana the boa constrictor at the 2001 VMAs, or maybe even since Slash posed with a snake in 1992 Video Vanguard Award honorees Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience” video, had snakes had such an MTV moment as they did this Monday. First, YouTuber Tana Mongeau walked the red carpet with a yellow Banana lookalike, and then snake mom/R&B sensation H.E.R. showed up with her own living scarf. "I got five noodles at home. I try to bring them everywhere I can because people love them and they are really cool,” H.E.R. posted on Instagram.

Tana Mongeau holds a snake as she arrives for the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. (Photo: Johannes EISELE / AFP)
Tana Mongeau holds a snake as she arrives for the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. (Photo: Johannes EISELE / AFP)

Both stars definitely made wearing snakes look cool. So, why is this also a low? Because many fans called the women out on Twitter, pointing out that “animals are not accessories” and even saying that H.E.R.’s snake looked stressed-out.

LOW: BTS have no luv for the VMAs

The phenomenally popular boy band won the first-ever Best K-pop Group VMA for “Boy With Luv,” but they weren’t there to accept or perform. This was perhaps because of online backlash to the newly created category — which many fans have criticized as being tokenistic or even downright racist, since no K-pop artists were nominated in any of marquee VMAs categories this year.

HIGH: Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes’s white-hot chemistry

Any doubters who thought these Best Collaboration VMA-winners’ hot summer romance was just a ruse to drum up tabloid publicity and Spotify streams were quickly proven wrong, when Cabello and Mendes convincingly burned up the screen with their sexy “Señorita” duet.

HIGH: Game on!

J Balvin and Bad Bunny’s bonkers, Super Mario Brothers-esque “Que Pretendes” and Lil Nas X’s futuristic, TRON-like “Panini”/“Old Town Road” medley proved that — contrary to what some might believe — video games can actually be a positive influence on today’s youth. And Normani’s basketball-themed performance of new single “Motivation” was a total slam dunk. All three performances got high scores this evening.

LOW: Girls, interrupted

Ariana Grande was this year’s most-nominated artist and actually won Artist of the Year, and 2019 breakout star Billie Eilish won Best New Artist, but neither could attend this year’s VMAs because they were touring overseas. Thank u, next, indeed.

HIGH: Jonas Brothers invade Jersey Shore

To celebrate the fact that this year’s MTV Video Music Awards telecast was the first ever to take place in New Jersey (at Newark’s Prudential Center), the JoBros — who were raised in Wyckoff, N.J. — gave a fistpump-worthy remote performance from the Stone Pony, the legendary Asbury Park club where Jersey superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi got their start. It was basically the closest thing to a rock ‘n’ roll moment that the VMAs had to offer this year — other than a brief appearance by presenter Lenny Kravitz, Miley Cyrus’s new Pixies-quoting post-breakup tattoo or the snippet of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” that introduced a Jersey-inspired Sopranos mini-reunion.

HIGH: Yo! MTV raps

The finale featuring New Jersey heroes Naughty by Nature, Queen Latifah, Redman, Wyclef Jean and Fetty Wap was an old-school romp that had the Prudential audience shouting, “Hip hop hooray!” — even if many young spectators probably had no idea who any of these people (other than Fetty) were. It was kind of nice to see that MTV was still down with “O.P.P.” after all these years.

Here’s the complete list of winners at the 2019 MTV VMAs:

MICHAEL JACKSON VIDEO VANGUARD AWARD: Missy Elliott

VIDEO OF THE YEAR: Taylor Swift, “You Need to Calm Down”

ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Ariana Grande

SONG OF THE YEAR: Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road (Remix)”

BEST NEW ARTIST: Billie Eilish

BEST COLLABORATION: Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello, “Señorita”

PUSH ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Billie Eilish

BEST POP: Jonas Brothers, “Sucker”

BEST HIP HOP: Cardi B, “Money”

BEST R&B: Normani ft. 6lack, “Waves”

BEST K-POP: BTS ft. Halsey, “Boy With Luv”

BEST LATIN: ROSALÍA & J Balvin ft. El Guincho, “Con Altura”

BEST DANCE: The Chainsmokers and Bebe Rexha, “Call You Mine”

BEST ROCK: Panic! At The Disco, “High Hopes”

VIDEO FOR GOOD: Taylor Swift, “You Need to Calm Down”

BEST DIRECTION: Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road (Remix)”

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Taylor Swift ft. Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco, “ME!”

BEST EDITING: Billie Eilish, “bad guy”

BEST ART DIRECTION: Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY: ROSALÍA & J Balvin ft. El Guincho, “Con Altura”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello, “Señorita”

BEST GROUP: BTS

BEST POWER ANTHEM: Megan Thee Stallion ft. Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign, “Hot Girl Summer”

SONG OF THE SUMMER: Ariana Grande & Social House, “boyfriend”

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